Why does it appear to many Americans that discontented Muslims are violent?
There are two answers. The first is that even if a million Muslims around the world were actively engaged in terroristic violence-which is a fantasy number-that's still one million out of 1.4 billion. So we're talking about an incredibly minuscule percentage of Muslims who are actively using violence to register their discontent. The fact that the media cover the violence as if it's representative of the larger Muslim world is part of the problem, not part of the reality.
We need to understand that most Muslims who are opposed to the way their societies are governed or to the global world order are either passively accepting it and just grumbling, like most people, or trying to work through politics, or trying to emigrate to other countries. They're protesting the same way most of us protest.
Let's turn to two specific examples from the headlines. The first one is the ongoing violence in France. Young Muslims rioted for more than two weeks. What does Islam have to do with their rage, if anything?
In France, Islam is not the problem. The problem is that the people who are "revolting"--the word that President Chirac has used--are doing so because they are Muslim and have been discriminated against because of this for decades. In other words, because they are Muslim and black African, they have been discriminated against. They come from countries all of which were colonized, often brutally, by France. They come to France with the promise of the republican ideal of equality. But instead they are segregated into ghettoes, get the worst jobs, don't get access to good housing, good education, or a chance for a good life
And is this an expression of what you refer to as "ghetto Islam"?
Yes. And this is very important, because while it's a ghetto Islam in the sense that these are Muslims who have been segregated into ghettoes who are rioting, they're not doing so because they're Muslim. In fact, the last time there was a very specifically anti-Muslim event in France, the passage of the anti-head scarf ban in 2004, Muslims responded peacefully. When the organized Muslim community felt a slight by the state, it responded within the system.
This time, these are kids who are Muslim culturally, certainly by heritage. But most are not acting as Muslims. And the only good thing to come out of these riots is the surprising fact to most commentators that it appears that the extremist Muslim groups have not been a presence here. So far, they have not been able to make the inroads everyone was scared that they would make among these poor French kids who would seem to be the natural recruiting ground for them.
Holding up a mirror to each side
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I think it proves it. I was in France a few weeks ago, right before the riots broke out, speaking to [Muslim] activists. They were saying the same thing the kids are saying now: "We want to become integrated into France." This is not a bunch of nihilistic kids who have lost all hope. This is a typical French response. There's a history of this kind of violent response in France over exclusion from the vaunted French Republican identity. So Islam has played a role in many ways by its absence; not by its presence.
Let's talk about the second news-related example: the recent terror attacks in Amman, Jordan-Muslims killing Muslims.
It's an example of what I believe is the failure of Muslim leaders across the board to respond early on when this kind of jihadi culture was emerging in the '80s and '90s. Too many mainstream and leading Muslim voices either ignored it, or excused it, or justified it, or criticized it except when it came to the two or three exceptions, which always includes Israel and one or two others, such as Chechnya.
I wrote a piece called "Sheik al-Dhari's Disastrous Gamble and Ours". When I was in Iraq and met with him last year, I asked him how Iraqis could resist the U.S. occupation. He said, "We will get rid of the Americans even if means killing every infidel." This kind of nonchalant embrace of violence is just one example of the larger unwillingness of too many--although by no means all or even most--Muslim leaders to take on the violent culture that has emerged within Muslim societies and has allowed this to mushroom. And it's at least partly why, in my opinion, the so-called moderate religious leaders have become increasingly irrelevant.
Why did this happen in Amman?
Because [Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the insurgents in Iraq understand full well that Amman is the foreign base of the occupation of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Westerners are there as part of the Iraq occupation. And Amman has become a place where Iraqis who are part of the political process come to meet each other if it's generally too dangerous to do so in Iraq. These bombings, in one sense, were given a religious veneer in the way Zarqawi talks about them: Jordan in bed with the infidels and the crusaders. But the truth is that the terrorists went there because these hotels in Amman have become a strategic base for the occupation of Iraq, which is the crucial thing they're fighting against.
A culture and a system helped turn Zarqawi from a street thug into the arch-terrorist successor to Osama bin Laden. And that system, while it's still very much a minority within Islam, has a lot of power and money. And too many Muslim leaders have not acknowledged it or tried to deal with it until recently.
I want to constantly hold up a mirror to both sides. Because when you hold up a mirror to either side, you always see the other. So if I want to challenge Muslims to deal with the violence that has increasingly come to define Muslim politics or responses to oppression, you need to do the same thing in America and see how violent a society America has become.
Take the invasion of Iraq, for example, from a Muslim perspective: We've gone into a country without any good reason, based on lies, and killed over a 100,000 people, and brought about exactly the opposite of what we said we were going to do. And only a tiny minority of Americans has actively come out and opposed it. So it looks as if American society backs violent, aggressive, and unlawful behavior of their government. That's how Muslims view us. With good reason, the same way we can look at the Muslim world and say, "Why aren't there bigger outcries?"
How is it that what I call this pathology of violence has been able to emerge in the Muslim world? It's because too many Muslim leaders didn't stop it at the root because it wasn't directed against them. And it was a good way to channel people's anger toward someone other than their own societies and their own elites, or their own positions.
This is where arrogance and ignorance come in: Both Muslims and Westerners, Americans more specifically, are ignorant of the fact that it's still a small minority of people involved in this violence and hatred and so-called clash of civilizations.
If the Muslim world has a high percentage of regimes that oppress their people and encourage them to direct their anger outward rather than to have internal reform, why are you critical of those people who want to bring democracy to the Muslim world?
I am in no way critical of wanting to bring democracy to the Muslim world. What I'm critical of is the hypocrisy involved with people assuming you can bring democracy through occupation, invasion, or force. When I go to the Middle East, the thing that people tell me is, the rhetoric is so great; Bush constantly says that we are supporting Arab democracy or Middle East democracy. But the reality is U.S. policies have in no way changed. We have not fundamentally challenged any of our ally governments in the region to democratize.
For example, Professor Noah Feldman went to Iraq after writing a book called "After Jihad," which is a great idea. Who wouldn't like jihad to be transcended? But when you start the book as he did, with a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad about the greater jihad being spiritual and the lesser jihad being on the battlefield, you begin in the wrong way. This is not considered sound, strong hadith. Most Muslim theologians do not believe that the prophet Muhammad actually said it. And conservative Muslims have been using this fact to bash moderate Muslims, saying, in effect, "You don't even know your own religion. You're using this hadith as if this is a strong argument for stopping violence, or stopping jihad when, in fact, it's not considered to be the Prophet's words."
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